April 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Sophie Ormiston
23rd March, 2022

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be a guest on the I, Science radio show. Later, I played it back for my mum. I was excited to share the experience with her, but once I hit play, I couldn’t stop myself physically cringing.

“My voice sounds so… weird!” I said. “I don’t know why I sound like that.”

“No, you sound the same as always,” my mum replied, undisturbed. 

Of course, that didn’t make me feel any better. If anything, it made me feel worse. Was that what I really sounded like to everyone but myself? 

I’m not alone in my discomfort. Almost everyone squirms when they hear their own voice played back to them. As it turns out, this phenomenon is so common that it has a name: ‘voice confrontation.’ Put simply, voice confrontation occurs due to a difference between what we expect our voice to sound like compared to what it actually sounds like. This cognitive dissonance can be quite disconcerting, resulting in a negative reaction to vocal recordings. One reason for this difference in sound can be explained by physics.

Usually when we hear things, the soundwaves reach our ears externally. The vibrations travel through particles in the air to our ear drums. The vibration of the ear drum prompts movement in the ossicles, a trio of tiny bones which transmit the vibrations to the cochlea. The cochlea is the part of the inner ear which is responsible for hearing. In the cochlea, the frequency of the soundwaves is translated into representative neural activity which can then be sent to the brain for processing. 

However, when we hear ourselves speak, external stimulation isn’t the only way the soundwaves travel to our brains. Because our vocal cords are located within our bodies, a lot of the sound is internally conducted through our bones. Internal bone conduction boosts lower frequencies of sound than external air conduction does, meaning we hear our voices as deeper and richer than they really are. Therefore, when we hear a recording and the soundwaves of our voice reach us solely through vibrations in the air, we sound a lot thinner and higher pitched than we are used to – which explains why I think I sound rather chipmunk-esque in recordings! The disconnect between expectation and reality causes us to cringe at hearing our voices played back.

It’s not all down to physics, though. In the late 60s, a pair of psychologists named Phil Holzman and Clyde Rousey ran a series of experiments which found that our voices carry a lot more emotional information than we realise. These so called ‘extra-linguistic cues’, such as anxiety levels, sadness, anger, and indecision are only perceivable to us when we hear recordings of our voice. The realisation that our voices can convey so much meaning, which often we aren’t aware we even express, can be quite jarring. 

But don’t worry. No one else is thinking about your voice as much as you are. In fact, in a 2013 study, people rated their voices as significantly more attractive when they weren’t aware that it was their own voice they were hearing – most likely because they didn’t have any prior expectations. 

So, next time you’re forced to hear a recording of yourself, relax. You sound great. 

Sophie Ormiston is a contributing writer for I, Science. For her undergraduate degree, she studied Biochemistry at Imperial College London and is now studying on their MSc in Science Communication. Sophie is interested in exploring the relationship between science, society and culture, and hopes to continue communicating this passion in the future!